In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present. Book Bonus Beat: The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal the History of Pop Music.
You wanted to be there for the whoop. The whoop was the best part of virtually any social gathering in late 2011 or early 2012. The “We Found Love” intro would come on, and so many people would let out involuntary, wordless yelps of pure joy in perfect sync. By the time the drums hit, the dancefloor would be full. It was beautiful. I was at a damn office Christmas party, not exactly the most turnt of occasions, and that “We Found Love” intro changed the entire chemistry of the room. The “whoop” is not unique to “We Found Love.” It’s the universal sign of “this is my jam,” and it applies to any and all jams. But the “We Found Love” whoops were not regular whoops. I don’t spend enough time in places where one might encounter the “We Found Love” intro these days, but I bet it still gets the whoop.
“We Found Love” was one of the momentous pop hits of the early ’10s, but it’s not structured as a pop song. Instead, it’s the logical endpoint of a road that Rihanna had been traveling for a long time. Before the EDM wave came to colonize the American charts, Rihanna was making outright club bangers that crossed from dance-pop into full-on house. She made most of those tracks — almighty heaters like “Don’t Stop The Music” and “Only Girl (In The World)” with the Norwegian production duo Stargate, the most prolific collaborators that she ever had. Those guys were great at integrating house beats and structures into pop songs, but “We Found Love” was far beyond anything that Stargate could do. It was another beast entirely.
“We Found Love” is rave music. It’s a track. It’s not a pop song that nods in the direction of the dancefloor. It is the dancefloor. A pop producer couldn’t have made “We Found Love.” It needed to be a rave producer. As it happened, one of Rihanna’s opening acts on her 2011 tour was a full-on rave DJ who’d somehow stumbled into UK pop stardom. Together, Rihanna and this DJ made an all-time party-annihilator, a song so euphoric that it practically feels like a drug.
All through 2010 and 2011, Rihanna was in full imperial-era pimp-stride. She could do no wrong. Rihanna was cranking out one album per year, and those albums were jammed with hits. Loud, Rihanna’s 2010 LP, had three Hot 100 chart-toppers, as well as another single, “Cheers (Drink To That),” that made it to #7. (It’s a 10.) At the same time, you could hear Rihanna’s voice on a couple of other artists’ top-20 hits. Kanye West, a guy who’s been in this column a bunch of times, crammed a whole choir of pop-star voices onto his #18 single “All Of The Lights,” but Rihanna was the one who sang the hook. Shortly afterward, she sang another hook on Nicki Minaj’s #19 hit “Fly.” Rihanna’s voice was simply part of the air. It was everywhere.
It took a lot of work to remain that omnipresent. Rihanna had to tour behind Loud, but she also wanted to finish out the six-album Def Jam contract that she’d signed as a teenager, so she kept up her album-per-year pace. Rihanna recorded Talk That Talk while she toured behind Loud. She was traveling, recording, and partying all the time — a schedule so demanding that she had to be hooked up to an IV drip at regular intervals. While she toured through Europe, her opening act was Calvin Harris, a guy who’d come out of nowhere to take over the UK charts.
Calvin Harris got so big, so fast. If you’re not plugged into the music-festival landscape, you might not fully understand how popular this guy still is. Plenty of dance DJs were headlining gigantic corporate raves and pulling massive paychecks in the early ’10s, but Harris dwarfed all of them, both commercially and physically. (Harris reportedly stands about 6’6″, which makes him one of the tallest people ever to have his name on a #1 hit, though I’ve been told that Afrojack is even taller. Neither of these guys is quite as tall as me, but I like the idea that you could field an intimidating backcourt of celebrity DJs.) Even long after the EDM bubble burst, Harris still draws huge crowds. Just this year, he closed out the mainstage at Coachella. The headlining act on the poster was the K-pop girl group BLACKPINK, but you could argue that the person who closes out the big stage is the real headliner.
Calvin Harris’ parents both come from England, but he was born in the ridiculously named Scottish town of Dumfries. There’s a Dumfries near me in Virginia, too. Every time we drive past the highway sign, my kids are like, “Dad, why is this place called Dumb Fries?” (When Harris was born, the #1 song in America was Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson’s “Say Say Say.” In the UK, it was McCartney’s “Pipes Of Peace.” That was a good week to be Paul McCartney.) As a teenager in the late ’90s and early ’00s, Harris got into making dance tracks in his bedroom. Like so many artists of his generation, he got his big break when a manager heard the music on his MySpace page.
Calvin Harris released his first two singles, “Acceptable In The 80s” and “The Girls,” in 2007, and both were top-10 UK hits. Both are thumping electro-house tracks with Harris’ own goofy deadpan vocals. Harris couldn’t sing, and he didn’t really try. Instead, he cultivated a persona as a self-aware, deadpan party guy in the Chromeo mold. It worked shockingly well for him. That same year, Harris also released I Created Disco, a frankly hilarious title for a 2007 debut album. He also produced another top-10 hit, Kylie Monogue’s cover of the Roxy Music classic “Love Is The Drug.” In 2008, Harris produced “Dance Wiv Me” and “Holiday,” two singles that the London grime MC Dizzee Rascal took all the way to #1. Harris sang the hook on “Dance Wiv Me,” too. One year into his career, Calvin Harris was already a chart titan in his homeland.
In 2009, Calvin Harris released his sophomore album Ready For The Weekend, and first single “I’m Not Alone” became his first #1 UK hit as lead artist. After that album, Harris figured out that he should mostly stop singing on his own tracks and bring in some professionals instead. In 2011, Harris recruited international stars like Kelis and Ne-Yo to sing on his tracks, and those songs became big hits all through Europe. When Rihanna toured through Europe, Harris opened her shows, and he presented her with “We Found Love.”
Calvin Harris wrote and produced “We Found Love” on his own, coming up with the hook while singing gibberish syllables over one of his own beats. For a while, Harris shopped the song around to different singers. The former Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger once claimed that she’d stupidly passed on “We Found Love.” Former Number Ones artist Leona Lewis apparently recorded the track, but she didn’t want to release it as the first single from her album, so she didn’t get to keep the song. Later on, Lewis claimed that her version was better than Rihanna’s, and Harris tweeted and deleted his response: “Wouldn’t have been a hit if anyone else had sung it tho.”
What can you say? He’s right. The Leona Lewis version of “We Found Love” has never leaked, but you can pretty easily imagine how it would sound. It might be more technically proficient than the Rihanna version. It might be showier, too. But would it kick you in the soul? Would it take over your consciousness and take you to another mental plane? I can’t see it. That was all Rihanna. She’s been in this column so many times, with so many more left to go, but I’m not sure I’ve properly conveyed, or reckoned with, the power of Rihanna’s voice. Rihanna’s voice can be thin or flimsy. She might not even sound like she’s trying. But she’s got supernatural levels of weight and presence. She can hold a track the way a classic movie star’s face can hold a screen.
Even without Rihanna’s voice, “We Found Love” would’ve been a banger. The instrumental version is a banger. Harris’ early hits were mostly dinky synth-bounce tracks. They’re fun enough, but you can understand why he was a total unknown in the US before he worked with Rihanna. But “We Found Love” taps into deep veins of house-music history. The squelchy organ-riff and pounding piano would’ve fit right onto any compilation of Trax Records classics, but the architecture, with its slow-building crescendos, as built for an early-’10s dance climate when everyone wanted to hear the big bass drop. It’s a hard, funky, classic rave song. Matter of fact, the “We Found Love” whoop sounded a lot like the whoops I heard at late-’90s raves when the DJ, at the peak of the night, would throw on “Music Sounds Better With You.” Calvin Harris got a feature credit on “We Found Love” without singing a single word on the track, and he earned that shit.
But then there’s Rihanna. She understands exactly how to attack this song. When Rihanna’s voice first appears on “We Found Love,” it’s just her and that organ riff, and she sounds like she’s already floating on a bliss-bubble. She’s belting hard, but there’s a dreamy quality to her voice, and the opening line tells you why: “Yellow diamonds in the light.” She could be singing about actual diamonds, or it could be some mystical metaphor about souls converging, but that’s not what’s happening. She’s singing about ecstasy pills, which puts “We Found Love” into the grand British rave tradition of hit singles with arcane club-drug references that censors weren’t swift enough to catch. (Word to Calvin Harris’ Scottish progenitors the Shamen, who landed a #1 UK hit with 1992’s “Ebeneezer Goode,” which mostly exists as an excuse to shout the line “E’s are good.”)
“We Found Love” isn’t a pure drug song, but drugs are key to its power. The song’s central refrain, repeated over and over, has a strange and totemic power: “We found love in a hopeless place.” It’s so evocative. You know exactly what it means, and you don’t need to know any further details. It’s about the dizzy, ferocious kind of love that can happen when two absolute fuckups lock in with one another. It’s that early-adulthood thing where you’re desperately drunk all the time, living in absolute squalor, killing time from one weekend to the next. It’s finding someone else who’s raging as hard as you, who wants to get lost in it with you. I remember that feeling acutely, and I got there without messing around with rave drugs too much. This song makes me feel like I missed out on them. (I guess it’s not too late for me to get into rave drugs, but I’m a middle-aged dad, and they wouldn’t exactly fit into my life as it is currently constructed.)
Rihanna just floats on “We Found Love.” She puts the full force of her pop-star charisma into the track, but she also sounds totally human — almost like someone singing along with her favorite song in the club. She’s a part of the track, lifting it and pushing it. But when everything ramps up to the thundering, overwhelming bass drop, she stops singing entirely. When the beat locks back in, she’s right there with it. It’s an absolutely magnificent vocal performance because it finds just the right sense of abandon, of total and obliterating in-the-moment experience. For my money, it’s Rihanna’s best song.
For my money, it’s Rihanna’s best video, too. I could do without the drawn-out intro, the thing where some British lady intones spoken-word diary stuff over moody pianos while director Melina Matsoukas, a frequent Rihanna collaborator, flashes images of proto-Euphoria debauchery onscreen. But then the song hits, and we get into the story of two broke and bummy kids. Rihanna stars with the boxer-turned-model Dudley O’Shaughnessy, who reportedly dated Rihanna for a hot second while they were making the video. Together, they find feverish, sloppy young-love connection. They run though skate parks. They jump around on takeout-joint counters. They dance to a Calvin Harris DJ set at some kind of tiny daylight mud-rave. Naturally, they do a whole lot of drugs. Matsoukas goes buckwild with the Trainspotting/Requiem For A Dream imagery and editing, and it’s all super-effective. Watching this video today, it’s obvious that Matsoukas was always fated to make her own movies.
Matsoukas claims that the “We Found Love” video is a cautionary tale about drugs and abuse, but she makes the squalor look so glamorous and romantic. When you first watch the video, its dark turn at the end feels abrupt and maybe forced. On repeat viewings, though, you can see how Matsoukas foreshadows things. It’s hard not to notice that Dudley O’Shaughnessy looks a lot like Chris Brown, so there’s an extra charge when he tattoos the word “MINE” on Rihanna’s ass. When they’re screaming at each other in a car, it’s genuinely upsetting. Matsoukas says that it’s not about Rihanna’s own life story, but there’s still a sense of relief when she packs her shit and leaves at the end. They might’ve found love, but it wasn’t the type of love that should last forever. Throughout, the imagery stays vivid and intense, even when it gets to the hallucinatory image of Rihanna barfing pink streamers on a sidewalk.
“We Found Love” did not take long to become a massive global smash, topping charts in dozens of countries. The single reached #1 in America in the same week that Rihanna released her Talk That Talk album. I like that record a lot, but “We Found Love” overwhelms almost other track around it. Talk That Talk eventually went triple platinum, but most of its other singles didn’t become big hits. Her slinky pop-reggae follow-up “You Da One” peaked at #14, and the album’s title track, which had a Jay-Z verse but no video, only made it to #31. Sometime around then, Rihanna briefly got back together with Chris Brown, the ex who’d abused her so badly. Brown appeared on a remix of “Birthday Cake,” a dizzily horny song that appeared on Talk That Talk as more of an unfinished sketch, and it peaked at #24. I really like that song, but it just felt bad to see her back with Brown.
I’m not trying to get moralistic here. That stuff happens. It’s extremely common for women who have left their abusers to come back, and it almost seemed like Rihanna had announced her intentions with the “We Found Love” video. It was sad and strange to see that story playing out in full view of the world. But Rihanna didn’t stay together with Chris Brown, and she emerged from that situation unscathed.
Rihanna made her acting debut in the summer-2012 dog turd Battleship, and she came out of that unscathed, too. She was teflon. Eventually, another Talk That Talk song hit big, and it was one of the Calvin Harris joints. “Where Have You Been,” a hammering house track that Harris co-produced with Dr. Luke and Cirkut, made it to #5, and it entered the grand hall of Rihanna bangers. (It’s a 9.)
“We Found Love” was the first real chart hit for Calvin Harris, but it was not the last. After “We Found Love” blew up, American radio programmers discovered a bunch of tracks that Calvin Harris had already released. “Feel So Close,” already a #2 hit in the UK, made it to #12 on the Hot 100 in April 2012, giving Harris his first Hot 100 hit as lead artist. His Ne-Yo collab “Let’s Go,” another previously established UK hit, reached #17 in August. “Sweet Nothing,” a collaboration with Florence & The Machine howler Florence Welch, peaked at #10 in 2013. (I apparently already gave that song a 7, but I was tripping. It’s at least an 8.)
Calvin Harris hasn’t been back to #1 since “We Found Love,” but he’s racked up a whole lot more hits than most of his superstar-DJ peers. On his 2014 single “Summer,” Harris went back to singing his own lead vocals — not a great idea — and made it all the way to #7. (It’s a 4.) In 2016, Rihanna sang the lead vocal on Harris’ single “This Is What You Came For,” and it peaked at #3 — Harris’ highest-charting single as lead artist. Taylor Swift, who was dating Harris at the time, ghost-wrote that song, and she sang uncredited backup vocals, like she was Prince in 1986 or something. It’s fun to think that there was a Rihanna/Taylor Swift collab floating around undetected for a while, though Taylor admitted everything before too long. (It’s an 8. Taylor Swift will appear in this column many times, including once for a song where she’s definitely trying to sound like Rihanna.)
Harris truly had blank-check status on his 2017 album Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1. At that point, Harris could get Frank Ocean and Migos to show up on the same track. I like that record. A Calvin Harris track with features from Pharrell, Katy Perry, and Big Sean should be an absolute clusterfuck, but I think “Feels” is a lot of fun. (It peaked at #20.) Last year’s Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 2 was nowhere near as good, but if and when the EDM resurgence inevitably comes back around, Harris could have another big pop-chart movement. Even if that never happens, he’s still rich forever, and he’s still the guy who helped Rihanna make “We Found Love.” That’s pretty good. As for Rihanna, you will not be surprised when I tell you that we’ll see her in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: “We Found Love” was only out for about a month when the great R&B futurist Tinashe released her slinky cover of the track, with its own video and everything. Here it is:
(Tinashe’s highest-charting single, the 2014 Schoolboy Q collab “2 On,” peaked at #24. I love that song.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Coldplay, a band that’s already been in this column, played a very Coldplay-sounding version of “We Found Love” in a 2011 visit to the BBC Live Lounge. A few months later, Coldplay released their pretty-bad Rihanna collaboration “Princess Of China,” which peaked at #20. Here’s their cover:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the woozy art-pop version of “We Found Love” that Bat For Lashes released in 2012:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s fan footage of Tori Amos playing an intense art-pop version of “We Found Love” at a 2014 live show:
(Tori Amos’ highest-charting single, 1998’s “Spark,” peaked at #49.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: The 2016 indie film American Honey follows a crew of broke young people with rough pasts and unfortunate hair situations as they road-trip through the Midwest, trying to sell magazine subscriptions, and it uses “We Found Love” as a kind of theme. Here’s the song soundtracking the moment where Sasha Lane meets Shia LaBeouf:
The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now on paperback via Hachette Books. Buy the book here and, uh, get yourself out of a hopeless place? It’s getting harder and harder to come up with anything to put in this space, but I have decided that I’m going to keep going with this bit forever, for some reason. Maybe I’m in a hopeless place.